David Kilgour: Canada's water sources aren't limitless, and we must keep what we have

David vs. David

Contrary to a long-cherished myth that Canada holds a quarter of the world’s fresh water, our country contains only about seven per cent of it, and 0.5 per cent of the earth’s total population. The myth and reality together probably explain why we are the second-largest consumers of water as a nation and often take it for granted during showers and other bad stewardship practices.

Water charges are low across Canada; in 1999 (the most recent survey) an estimated 44 per cent of our residences nationally were not even metered for water consumption. Residential consumers use about 343 litres per person per day – about twice as much as people in other industrialized nations.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties.

Provincial and municipal governments rarely seem to get the price of water right. Expert Steven Renzetti in B.C. wrote that this results in “overconsumption, water use conflicts, deteriorating infrastructure, declining water quality, and stifled innovation in water-conserving technologies.” Water pricing is done at the provincial level, but rates to consumers are set by municipalities. Good pricing is vital to improving water management.

A range of new water-saving technologies and approaches today also offer many opportunities for Canadians to change our relationship to water from one dominated by consumption to one of conservation.

Climate change is impacting water resources in many ways, but predicting exactly where and how it affects water remains difficult with both more flooding and droughts.

On the other hand ...

David Jones: Canada has water to spare and should look into selling it

Under our constitution, the provinces own their respective water resources and thus have wide responsibilities in day-to-day management. The federal government has only certain specific responsibilities, such as fisheries and navigation.

There appear to be large variations in the management of drinking water across Canada; there is no federal legislation on drinking water standards. The provinces and territories are responsible for the provision of safe drinking water, although the regulation of drinking water normally is done by municipal governments.

In the 1960s, some British Columbians thought that their province ‘suffered’ from too much water. Such thinking, combined with already severe shortages then in places like southern California and Arizona and the reality that most of Canada’s water drains to the north, gave rise to a number of water diversion proposals.

The most bizarre scheme was probably the Grand Canal, which was to turn James Bay into a freshwater reservoir capable of sending 36 cubic kilometres of water yearly to the Great Lakes. A dike separating James Bay from Hudson Bay would open at low tides and close at high ones, supposedly to release salt water and retain fresh water. In a few years, James Bay would become a lake. Nuclear power plants would pump its water through pipelines to Lake Huron, from where it would move to Lake Superior or Lake Michigan and points southwest. The Grand Canal was promoted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and others.

With the drought in Mexico underway since 1994 and across the western U.S., there are probably many supporters in both neighbours today of water diversions from north to south. By 1999, however, thinking on water among Canadians had changed dramatically.

That year, Sun Belt Water Inc. of California sued the government of Canada after it was granted a license to export water by tanker to California. The B.C. government, following a public outcry, imposed a moratorium on the export of bulk water. Water and the careful use of it are now acknowledged across the political spectrum as critical to our national future.

In the summer of 2013, there was a major controversy over Nestlé’s facility in Hope, B.C., which pumped millions of liters of groundwater without paying a cent to the province and sold it back to consumers in bottles. Nothing demonstrated quite so well the inadequacy of existing provincial legislation and practices on groundwater.

Water consumers have for decades been able to access water with no heed to First Nations’ rights or how the use was impacting the environment and quality of the water. Multinationals could access water without charges; watersheds were degraded; there was an overall major lack of accountability to residents.

In the summer of 2013, for example, there was a major controversy over Nestlé’s facility in Hope, B.C., which pumped millions of liters of groundwater without paying a cent to the province and sold it back to consumers in bottles. Nothing demonstrated quite so well the inadequacy of existing provincial legislation and practices on groundwater.

Water law in Canada is based on English common law, which distinguishes surface water from groundwater. The first is governed by riparian rights; the second by the rule of absolute capture. Water users with riparian rights cannot infringe on the rights of downstream users, but those with groundwater rights can extract water without any regard for their neighbours. Hydrogeological understanding of groundwater has evolved greatly, but regulations have yet to ensure sustainable use of groundwater across Canada.

In short, the water in various forms we so take for granted in Canada is a fragile resource which today needs much more attention from us all.